Where a defamation lawsuit against the director of Black Lives Matter Franklin County lacked foundation in fact or law, the director and the organization were awarded attorneys’ fees and costs pursuant to Virginia’s anti-SLAPP law.
In January 2022, Sinclair Television Group Inc., Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., ACC Licensee LLC, Devin Dwyer, Elizabeth Thomas and Jacqueline Yoo broadcast a news segment titled “Cop’s role in January 6 attack divides town with ties to Confederacy.” For a period of no more than four seconds, the segment included footage of the Minnix’s home. The segment also includes an interview of Bridgette Craighead, director of Black Lives Matter Franklin County.
Plaintiffs sued in the circuit court. The media defendants removed this action to federal court. Plaintiffs filed a motion to remand and defendants filed a motion to dismiss.
The plaintiffs are Virginia citizens, and the media defendants are completely diverse from the plaintiffs. For the reasons stated below, the court finds that there is no possibility that the plaintiffs could prevail against the local defendants on any of their claims. The local defendants have therefore been fraudulently joined and their citizenship is properly disregarded for the determination of diversity jurisdiction.
Plaintiffs claim that all defendants are liable on a theory of defamation per se because defendants “collectively imply Plaintiffs Minnix as unindicted coconspirators of the January 6, 2021, insurrection exhibited in Washington, D.C. and linked them to the two (2) Rocky Mount Police Department officers who have actually been indicted and convicted.” To the contrary, the court finds that there is “no possibility” that the plaintiffs can establish a defamation claim.
First, neither Craighead’s statement (“It is their land and country and we just live in it”) nor the voiceover statement (“Rocky Mount is predominantly white and politically conservative”) contains a “provably false factual connotation,” much less any false statement that can “reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about” any member of the Minnix family. The segment does incorrectly suggest that the Minnix home is in Rocky Mount, when it is actually located in the nearby town of Boones Mill. While false, this statement lacks “the requisite defamatory sting” to the Minnix’s reputation.
Second, Craighead’s statement and the voiceover statement are protected by the First Amendment. Finally, even if any statement in the segment were actionable under defamation law, the plaintiffs fail to plead that defendants possessed the requisite intent.
Plaintiffs further claim that the media defendants exhibited actual malice by: depicting the Minnix home while a minor child was outside, targeting the home, failing to inform the Minnix family and failing to gain the Minnix family’s consent. These allegations find no footing in defamation law and fail to establish actual malice.
Assault and endangerment
Because endangerment is not a recognized tort in Virginia, this claim is easily disposed of. Regarding assault, assaultive conduct must carry with it an “unambiguous threat of imminent harm.” The brief display of the Minnix home in a news segment falls far short of this standard.
Plaintiffs further claim that they have had to request police protection from individuals parked near their house, stalking them and trespassing on the Minnix family’s property. But neither set of defendants is responsible for the assaultive actions of others.
Plaintiffs list a number of supposed duties, among them a duty of truth and a duty to adequately investigate. However “a plaintiff cannot prevail on a negligence claim after she loses a defamation claim based on the same pleadings.”
Plaintiffs further claim that all defendants possessed a duty to protect children. There is no possibility that such a relationship existed between Craighead and the Minnix children when she participated in this interview, far from the Minnix home.
Plaintiffs claim that Craighead-a candidate for office-had a “duty of due care to protect potential constituents” such as the Minnix family. Craighead bore no such duties. And even if such duties existed, her participation in the interview could not possibly constitute breach.
The defamation claim against the local defendants lacks foundation in fact or law. The court awards the local defendants attorneys’ fees and costs pursuant to Virginia’s anti-SLAPP law.
Plaintiffs’ motion to remand denied. Defendants’ motions to dismiss granted. Local defendants’ request for attorneys’ fees granted.
Minnix v. Sinclair Television Group Inc., Case No. 7:23-cv-00091, May 19, 2023. WDVA at Roanoke (Urbanski). VLW 023-3-273. 19 pp.